Systems Thinking in Local Authorities

[Post-lunch dip was strong, so this session’s notes are not as comprehensive]

Phil Badley, Stockport

Interesting to hear Phil talk about his own realisation that his area, HR, was full of the same errors that he’d seen in other areas of the business.  I’d like to find out more about what it was that helped him go through this experience.  Phil Badly spoke about leadership buy-in.  Seddon says if you want to make organisational change, you need CEO or Local Authority buy-in, otherwise your chances are limited.

Denise Lyon, East Devon Council

The experience of going through Check was like an “honesty mirror” because the news we discovered was horrible.  They spent five out of six weeks of Check was spent arguing who the customer was, not what service they were getting.  They were horrified by how bad the service really was (141 days for some activities). It was so shocking because we had no measures in place that would have helped us see/understand this.  Our national indicators showed they were not meeting some measures, but none of them showed the scale of the problem.  Understanding value or failure (called “preventable demand” because staff didn’t like it) and one-stop capability and end to end times allowed them to see and understand their service levels. Their previous measures were always applied after the event.

The question they keep coming back to is, “who is accountable for this service? Which manager in this hierarchy of managers is responsible? Who’s feet do you hold to the fire?” Most managers thought “It’s not me; I’m strategic!” whilst the next level said “It’s not me, I’m strategic too! I’m too busy to deal with this!” while the manager at the bottom was looking at the top saying “You higher managers are paid a lot more than me, so it must be you!”

They don’t call them “interventions” (too much like Audit commission) so they call them reviews, but it’s stopped at management.  It’s only two years later that they are starting to do “something radical”(?) with the “management piece”.

The Vanguard consultant is described as a “class 1 drug” and a “mind bending hallucinogen” and a “guru” who was central to making fundamental changes to our thinking.

John van de Laarschot, Stoke City Council

John spoke about the idea of ‘red’ hats and ‘green’ hats (which I think refers to the idea, if there was a fire and everyone left the building, who would you let back in first, because they were central to doing business, and who would come in last) and discovered that 50% of their staff don’t contact the customers!

Interesting capability chart that showed after the initial intervention, performance trended worse for a period, showing that thinking hadn’t fully changed (people reverted to older behaviour).  John spoke about the need to “not walk away” from the intervention.

Example of Surface Water Management. A preventative maintenance program was set up to send a truck around on a calendar schedule, but the city is a flood risk so when it rains there are huge problems. But this shouldn’t happen because there’s a preventative program.  However, the frequency of maintenance didn’t match the fact that the drains at the bottom of the hill needed more cleaning than those at the top!  They overlaid the geography of the city onto the drains and re-drew the maintenance program.  They even used Google Earth to help with the mapping, with a “young person” (I love this phrase!).

Challenges are the scale and scope of the potential changes.  It’s hard to create the space to explore new ways of doing things. You can’t do this on a shoe-string (if you don’t have the capacity it will probably go slower).  There are also big political implications (often opposition groups want to ‘put it in a coffin’).  Systems Thinking creates a ‘different type of critter (employee)’ so there are issues of demarcation so having the Union on board at the start is important. 

Question and Answer Session

Q: Could John say more about ‘top level reporting’ with ‘systems thinking slipped in underneath’

John: Local Authorities are familiar with classical accounting and McKinsey / PwC. The type of methodology we want, to get change going, requires clear buy-in. The first attempts I had at selling the organisation on Systems Thinking was “we think it’s you and your mates”, so we needed to be ‘creative’. We’ve had Vanguard and PwC in the same room; and it’s like oil and water.  Out of the work that we’ve done, we’ve managed to keep them away from our customer-oriented interventions.  We were able to show it in ways that Command and Control types can understand. [So they showed reports and model to Command and Control types while running a separate set of ‘books’ showing their Systems Thinking view of the world]

Seddon: When you get to the evidence, it speaks for itself, but then you have a problem that people want it for the wrong reason.  I want it because it works, not because it’s about thinking. Buy-in is the wrong word, ‘understanding’ is the thing.  The Vanguard Network is for middle-managers to do the Vanguard Method but not telling the boss, which we encourage them to do.

Denise: Support was essential for the funding, support, opportunity to view other places.  If you can do it yourself, in your part of the organisation, then this might be a good start – better than no start, I think.

Q: If you hadn’t done Systems Thinking, where would you be now?

Denise: We were in the bottom quartile in national rankings. As time has moved on, and the financial crisis has hit, we have been in a good position to understand how we can sensibly take out from management and services. I dread to think about Local Authorities that are doing 10 – 20% cuts across all services, which I think is a poor way to manage. We feel in a strong position in the troubled times we’re in.

Q: Where was your ‘moment of truth?’ where you said ‘I will never do it the other way?’

Phil: Reading Seddon’s “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector”. I read it on holiday and realised that I’d been accountable for change in the past, and now understood ‘why’ it didn’t stick.

Seddon: The number of people who tell me “I wished I’d never met you …” (joke)






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